|Jesus Montero (left) says he's excited to be in Seattle, where big things are expected of him. (US Presswire)|
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Jack Zduriencik's come-to-Jesus moment arrived in the wee hours of the morning, little more than a month ago. It was created out of need and borne out of necessity.
As the Mariners bogged down at second base over the past two seasons, were left stranded at third, fumbled away opportunity after opportunity, their general manager searched for the light. Some light. Any light.
Jesus Montero could be a star. But, he's just one of Seattle's many young, unproven players. Likes and Dislikes >>
For nearly two years, Zduriencik imagined various bats to fit into his lineup and fill its Puget Sound-sized holes. One of them was Jesus Montero, the young catcher in the New York Yankees system. In fact, Zduriencik took a run at Montero two Julys ago, when the Mariners were shopping ace Cliff Lee, but instead turned toward a deal with Texas that delivered smoke -- Justin Smoak -- but still no fire.
Now, 18 months later, Montero was again available to him. But it was going to cost Zduriencik big. It was going to cost him Michael Pineda, the 6-foot-7, 260-pounder who made the American League All-Star team as a rookie last summer and, together with Felix Hernandez, gave the Mariners a one-two punch that could dominate for years.
He did not want to trade Pineda.
He also desperately did not want to go through a season like the last two, when the Mariners crossed the plate fewer times than any other team in the major leagues.
Conversations between him and Brian Cashman, his Yankees counterpart, had started during the winter meetings. Dragged through December. And now it was mid-January. And Zduriencik was losing his Z's.
"There were a lot of nights when I woke up at 3 o'clock in the morning staring at the ceiling," the GM was saying during a conversation the other day, Montero showing in the clubhouse following another workout, dreams of run-scoring hits nestled in the Mariners' heads. "Thinking about trading a young guy for a young guy, how this whole thing was going to come together, what names it was going to end up being.
"They're not easy trades. You realize there's so much at stake. We gave up an All-Star and a kid we like an awful lot.
"But we also got a kid that we think can be a middle of the lineup hitter for us."
Inside that clubhouse, that kid is settling in, having some fun and still meeting his new colleagues. Montero, a friendly, personable kid whose confidence belies his 22 years, estimates that he's met about "70 percent" of the team. He's looking forward to shaking hands with the other 30 percent in coming days.
Sleeper ... Kyle Seager, 3B: Seager wasn't very high on most propsect lists going into last season, in part due to his defensive limitations, but he hit well enough in the upper minors to get a 53-game look with the Mariners last season. After a cold start, Seager proceeded to scorch opposing pitchers for line-drive doubles, just as he had done in the minors. Seager isn't much of a home-run threat, and playing home games at Safeco Field won't help matters, but his gap power and keen batting eye could help him to an average in the .290 to .300 range, if not higher. Owners may look at last season's .258 mark, his lack of prospect hype and his place in a less-than-imposing Mariners lineup and discount him. However, Seager's ability to get on base and rack up doubles makes him worth a late-round flier in mixed league formats.
Impact prospect ... Danny Hultzen, SP: Jesus Montero will probably make the biggest impact of Seattle's prospects this season, but he is hardly a well-kept secret. Hultzen has yet to throw his first minor-league pitch -- his only professional experience came in the 2011 Arizona Fall League -- but he could still be a significant force in Fantasy as soon as this year. With Michael Pineda gone, Hultzen has a better opportunity to fill a hole in the rotation, and general manager Jack Zduriencik has indicated that he will be among the many pitchers competing for a rotation spot this spring. While it is likely that Hultzen will begin the year in the minors, it shouldn't be long before he makes his Seattle debut, and he could wind up being one of this year's top rookie pitchers. -- Al Melchior
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"I feel great," he said. "I'm happy to be here.
"I'm excited to be here, too."
Montero is ahead of many other youngsters throughout the majors this spring, but don't get overly excited by that. Because they open the season in Japan against Oakland on March 28, the Mariners' pitchers and catchers have been working out here since Feb. 12, a full week ahead of anybody else.
Yes, there a part of him still is surprised to be here.
"The trade was a surprise," said Montero, who was home in Venezuela when he learned of it via a phone call from Zduriencik. "I thought it would never happen. I wasn't thinking about it.
"When they told me, I was like, 'For real?' I was, like, wow. My family was surprised.
"But I'm happy to have a new opportunity. I have a new life."
What Zduriencik told Montero, approximately, according to the catcher was: "We finally have you."
It was a gutsy trade, especially from the Mariners' side, because if Safeco Field swallows up Montero's bat as it has so many others, and if Pineda settles in behind CC Sabathia and helps create another Yankee Dynasty, competitive baseball in Seattle might regress from the Dead Ball Era of the past two years to the Dead Sea Scrolls of history.
But as Zduriencik says of his talks with Cashman, "In the end, it was pretty simple: He needed a pitcher, and we needed a hitter. I hated to give up a guy like Michael Pineda. But from our standpoint we have what we think is some pretty good pitching."
Some of it was on display on Field 3 the other day, a flock of young kids with lightning in their arms creating quite a buzz, one after another, throwing live batting practice. Left-hander Danny Hultzen, Seattle's first-round pick out of the University of Virginia last summer. Left-hander James Paxton, who was dominant in Class A and Double A last season and has an outside chance to crack the Mariners' rotation this spring. First-rounder Taijuan Walker, a 19-year-old right-hander who didn't even start pitching until his senior year of high school in Yucaipa, Calif. In 22 professional games in the Arizona Rookie League and low Class A, he's dominated with an average of 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Mariners wanted a pitcher back if they were going to trade Pineda, so the Yankees included right-hander Hector Noesi in the deal (and coaxed right-hander Jose Campos out of Seattle with Pineda). Noesi, too, has a chance to win one of three open rotation jobs behind Hernandez and Jason Vargas.
"We have eight or nine guys competing for jobs in rotation," Zduriencik said. "Noesi is going to get every shot. Blake Beavin, Charlie Furbush, Hisashi Iwakuma, we brought Kevin Millwood in for veteran presence. ..."
But it's an increasingly full stockpile of young arms, like those on Field 3, that finally calmed Zduriencik enough to pull the trigger on Montero and stop waking up at 3 a.m.
Now, if Montero can pitch in and help reverse the trend of the past two years ... the Mariners scored just 556 runs last year, and 513 two seasons ago, both ranking 30th in the majors. Assuming all goes as expected this spring, the plan is for Montero to catch several times a week and DH the rest.
Most everyone who has seen Montero -- scouts, executives -- agrees that he will be something special at the plate. Behind it, that's where the questions come. Some scouts who have seen him say he will grow into the position. Some say he's better suited to DH.
Veteran Miguel Olivo, who will work behind the plate when Montero doesn't, already has taken the kid under his wing this spring.
"He knows a lot of things already, from working with Tony Pena and Joe Girardi [with the Yankees]," Olivo said. "But he's come to me to ask me a lot of questions.
"He's a baby. He needs some time, maybe a couple of years, to do what he needs to do. Right now, he's learning and watching. And he can help the team with his bat. He's got a big-league bat."
Which, for now, is what the Mariners really want, anyway. True, he threw out only 21 percent of opposing base-stealers last year. At 6-foot-4, 235, he's got such a large body that sometimes it's hard to get out of his own way. But he did cut his passed balls to seven in 2011, from 15 the year before.
Former catcher Jeff Datz, now Seattle's third-base coach, is working extensively with Montero this spring as well. Blocking balls. Footwork. Throwing to bases. All of it. And the Mariners like that Montero does not have all the answers -- he's inquisitive, and enthused.
"I see a tremendous talent," said Roger Hansen, special assistant to Zduriencik, who caught extensively during his 10-year minor-league career and serves as another M's catching guru (he also was Ken Griffey Jr.'s first roommate). "He's frothing at the bit to learn and to see how far he can go. The sky's the limit as to how high he's going to go and how fast he's going to get there."
While it might be something of a crash course this year behind the plate, Cashman already is on record as fearing he might have given up the next Miguel Cabrera with the bat.
"I hope he did," a well-rested Zduriencik said, chuckling. "But in the same sense, he got back a terrific guy with great stuff in Michael Pineda.
"If it serves the both of us well and meets both of our needs, then it was a good deal for both clubs."